Photography and the “saving action”

By Kristian Jebsen

The patients lay on ragged mats on the concrete floor, their ankles chained to the wall. A man rolled over and emptied his bladder into a narrow gutter that ran the length of the building. The piss ran by my feet and into the courtyard.

I had to take a picture. Or at least I was supposed to, but I had a difficult time doing so. The mental health patients interned at the Ghanaian prayer camp, Camp Horeb, were not in a position to understand the implications of being photographed, nor to effectively communicate their consent to me.

And what would people even understand about the situation if they saw it in a publication? Could I convey in an image the complexity of how Ghana cares for its mental health patients? And might the consumer of the images be colluding with me in my exploitation of suffering by viewing the images that I did not have consent for?

As images from the wars in Syria and Iraq and the resulting refugee crisis indicate, these questions are only gaining in importance. With the migration of news and information online, pictures and video have arguably become the most powerful, if not emotional, means of communication. But what can a still of James Foley about to be beheaded tell us? Or what can an image of Alan Kurdi tell us about the state of the world today? What can those images tell us about ourselves?

In an interview with Mother Jones, Fred Ritchin, dean of the International Center of Photography, says, “Photographs are not there to show us the world, but to show us a version of what may be happening. The ideal scenario is one in which the reader is motivated enough to become actively engaged in establishing the meaning of the imagery.” In other words, the consumer of the image will be inspired to consider the complexities behind an image, to try and understand the social, economic or political forces shaping the situation. Ironically, this seems to be what ISIS has accomplished by distributing images of its executions.

Susie Linfield, a professor at New York University and the author of The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, says that the horrific images taken by such Islamic extremists capture only some of the social and political upheaval that is occurring in the Middle East (and throughout other parts of the world), although they are particularly morally reprehensible. By viewing the stills from ISIS videos, we as consumers can (potentially) understand the destruction of traditional and social structures occurring in parts of the Middle East.

Although media has this potential to stimulate reflection and understanding, some experts say the reality is different. Stephen Mayes contends that news is presented in a way that precludes serious thought. Mayes, executive director of the Tim Hetherington Trust, says that we use these images to reaffirm our own worldview: “We use news as a sort of social positioning. We want to be comforted.” The news, says Mayes, “is about reaffirming what we already know.”

What we know is that ISIS is a barbarous organization that must be destroyed, and that we in the West are morally superior to them. The images we see published on the front page of our newspapers confirm this notion. Mayes maintains that we need to move away from defining ourselves by the media we consume and think more about the mission of media, which is to inform. Images need to be presented in such a way that involves the consumer, forces him or her to think about more than just the tragedy or horror represented.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag implies that consumers of media need to consider our own role in the suffering or displacement of people:

“To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”

Syrian refugees having rest at the floor of Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 5 September 2015.

Syrian refugees resting on the floor of the Keleti railway station in Budapest, Hungary, in September. (Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons)

This is why the images of the migrants arriving in Turkey, Greece and Italy are so important. Not only because they show us the desperation of the migrants, but also the nature and consequences of our inaction and how our lifestyles, as well as our political or military policies, have affected the situation.

It is imperative that we are made aware of the images take by Islamic extremists as well as those taken of three-year-old boys like Alan Kurdi. “Is it fundamentally inappropriate for even young people to be made aware of what is happening in the world?” asks Michael Goldfarb, head of communications for Doctors Without Borders, referring to the argument that such images represent collusion with those who intend to propagate their ideology through media.

To assume that everyone will react in a certain way, and thereby collude with the intentions of various photographers, is naïve. Regarding the images of Western journalists’ execution at the hands of ISIS, Linfield says:

“I don’t think that me looking at them is a collusion because it sends me in a very different direction [from what ISIS intends]. People all over the world are looking at these and having very different reactions. The idea that people all over the world are the same is a huge myth.”

The way we react to images is not controlled by anyone else. It is up to us to go beyond the empathy and sadness we feel when seeing disturbing images. It is this impetus, something Martha Gellhorn termed the “saving action,” that motivates us to act upon the emotion by way of our curiosity. If we are curious not just about what is happening in the world but also why it is happening, we might be more motivated to change. Perhaps this might allow us to avoid Sontag’s observation that sympathy only indicates the absence of an adequate reaction, “Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as much as our impotence.”

Perhaps I should have taken those pictures of the patients chained to the walls.

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Editor’s Note—Kristian Jebsen on his choice of subject for his feature article: At the unloading ramp at Birkenau there are several photographs documenting the arrival of Hungarian Jews. The images depict frightened and exhausted human beings who are walking to their deaths. I wondered what it took for a photographer to take such revealing images, what the taking of a similar images reveals about the photographer and the society he or she represents.


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